Sunday, January 18, 2009


Voting is the tip of democratic association. All the rest lies below the surface.

The kernel of democracy consists of association for the good of the whole. That association must necessarily be an active one to be most effective; for in a democratic association the members have their say in decisions made and policies followed. We cannot grow a democracy without attention to these requirements. Inattention leads to all the fractures that prevent, delay or ruin democracy’s promise to flower and bear much fruit.

Though evolutionary, democracy is never automatic and must be won and kept by endeavor. Democracy has its philosophy or principles but rises effectively from practice and by practice thereby expands. The democratic principles that we inherited from England had one beginning in the Magna Carta of 1215. By 1776, when we declared our independence, the franchise for voting was as restricted and without equal representation in the burgeoning states as it was in mother Britain, 3% of the population. Our national wrangles, lasting decades, had first to resolve before black men could vote by virtue of constitutional Amendment XIV (1868) and then women’s suffrage by Amendment XIX (1920). Not until Amendment XXIV (1964) did we eliminate the scourge of poll taxes. In 1971, eighteen-year olds obtained the right to vote by Amendment XXVI.

The struggle for as full a democracy as we can give ourselves has relied in great measure on those who already have the vote then granting the same participation to others. Expansions of the franchise came about, as shown above, but usually with great reluctance amidst strenuous argument, alarming protest and dreadful repression. Read of our climb in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States; see the docudrama Iron Jawed Angels.

Our history lesson for today and every day is the recognition that democracy can be nothing less that the shared, participatory experience of its citizens. We may well congratulate ourselves over the recent election thanks to the efforts to turn out the vote and vote in welcome numbers. But voting is not the cause of democracy. It is the result. Much more needs to be done to be fully democratic; much more is expected.

We must regard others as well as we regard ourselves. We must put aside our prejudices and accept that to be human is to have rights. We must see that liberty is the quality that sets free our being, not just safeguards our privileges and pocketbooks.

We must shoulder our responsibilities. Democracy, especially a representative democracy such as ours, calls us to be learners so that we may be knowledgeable to be equipped for apt decision-making. Learning means examination of our own ignorance and questioning of our own preconceptions. It means the work of study and the devotion of time to study. Prior to voting, we need a firm grasp of the duties of the office and criteria as to how candidates will be able to fulfill that office. We need to share our learning and views with others so that we do not fool ourselves by always seeking those who agree with us when together we could be wrong.

And we should find time to work for democracy. Advance worthy candidates. Take a turn in office. Contribute to causes. Promote the rights of others who do not yet share as equally as we do.

Democracy can move onward, but it takes more than a super-majority.

This article is revised from one published earlier on

© 2008, 2009 by Roger Sween.

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